Since breaking through in 2011 with her debut single “212,” Azealia Banks has been better known for what she does on social media than on SoundCloud. That buoyant kiss-off introduced listeners to Banks’s deceptively sweet rap persona; she would ruin you with a smile before dancing on your grave. But for Banks, it’s been difficult to keep that persona from cropping up in “real life,” and she’s feuded with label bosses, producers and other artists at a head-spinning rate, often resorting to misogynistic and homophobic insults.
For an artist defined by being outspoken, Banks let the music speak for itself on Tuesday night at the Black Cat, where she made her Washington debut after canceling two previous concerts. In a spiked collar and a skintight, rainbow-striped get-up, Banks was flanked by a DJ, a drummer and a pair of yellow-clad dancers who accompanied her through a set list heavy on songs from her 2014 album “Broke With Expensive Taste.” But aside from a few “make some noise” entreaties, Banks didn’t banter with the crowd or offer notes about her songs. Perhaps she finally learned that old lesson: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
Instead, Banks, 25, stuck to the things that make her such a promising talent, alternating between her sinewy rapping and diva house singing like the lovechild of Lil Kim and Crystal Waters. She also showed off some moves, joining in the choreography with her backup dancers and inspiring the fervent crowd to start a dance party. Banks’s music is built on the rhythms of nights past, present and future, from the shuffle of U.K. garage and the acidic squelch of rave music to more contemporary EDM and club constructions (she even has a song built on Munchi’s “Esta Noche,” bringing moombahton back to the city that birthed it). But in concert, the nuances of her tracks are erased: the four-on-the-four beats become pneumatic pistons that bludgeon the audience as an oxygenless cacophony washes over them, as if volume, bass and treble knobs have been turned as far as they’ll go.
The last few songs of Banks’s set provided a welcome reprieve, finally balancing her vocals with the music as she went down a rabbit hole of rave nostalgia on “Chasing Time,” “Miss Amor,” “Liquorice” and “Queen of Clubs.” Fans sang along to the Biggie sample on her hip-house single, “The Big Big Beat,” and reached a frenzied pitch when she closed her set with “212.” Five years on, “212” is as fierce as ever, and if Banks can remain as tight-lipped off-stage as she was onstage, maybe she’ll finally deliver on her promise. It seems she has finally learned the lesson of the song, in which she sings, “You got a lot, but you just waste all yours and they’ll forget your name soon, and won’t nobody be to blame but yourself.”